Playing Sarah Bernhardt


Harriet’s acting career suffers a catastrophic setback when memory loss forces her to quit her role as Sarah Bernhardt. In turmoil, she accepts the role of Mazo de la Roche in a production written by an amateur playwright and being performed in small-town Saskatchewan. Harriet soon discovers that she was chosen for this role because she holds the key to a secret from Mazo’s past. Meanwhile, the play, the role, and the town draw Harriet into the vortex of her own past.


I use old ticket stubs as bookmarks. They are reminders of good times; Pal Joey at the Shaw, the Great Lakes Jam, movies I have liked. After starting Joan Givner's Playing Sarah Bernhardt (Simon & Pierre), I picked a ticket to Regina's Globe Theatre out of the pile to mark my place. We had seen The Secret Garden there in December and, to my surprise, it was the setting for this novel about an aging actress who is losing her memory. Givner, whose past work has included major biographies of Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche, spent 25 years teaching English Literature at the University of Regina. This is her second novel. Harriet's long acting career is in shambles when she can no longer remember her lines in a play about Sarah Bernhardt. Wondering if she will end up poverty-stricken, sewing costumes backstage, she accepts the role of Mazo in a production written by a Saskatchewan playwright and performed at Regina's downtown theatre. Playing Sarah Bernhardt is a clever novel, incorporating the script for the play as part of the narrative. And while Harriet and her theatre colleagues are well-drawn characters, Regina also comes shining through. It's a haunting city with the prairie surrounding it on all sides, an old CPR hotel, a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, and the Globe Theatre housed in the old City Hall.

Owen-Sound Sun-Times

Playing Sarah Bernhardt, by Joan Givner By robin laurence The Georgia Straight Publish Date: 20-Jan-2005 Dundurn Press, 256 pp, $21.99, softcover. The title of this novel both entices and misleads. Sarah Bernhardt is a far less significant figure in Joan Givner's work than the once successful and now overlooked Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche (1885-1961). Both are historical characters played on-stage at various times by the book's protagonist, an alcoholic actor named Harriet. At the story's outset, Harriet is suffering distressing memory lapses: forgetting her Bernhardt lines on-stage, she flees the unnamed city where she has been working and lands, many steps down the ladder of success, as de la Roche in a new play in yet another unnamed city. (It appears to be Regina, where Givner taught university classes in English literature for many years before retiring to Vancouver Island.) Because the Regina-like place happens to be Harriet's hometown, and because aspects of her life are mysteriously linked to de la Roche's, the actor begins to muse on aspects of her own discordant past. Memory, identity, and family connection are inexorably intertwined here. Once she sorts out who she is, it seems likely she will remember her lines again and resume her career. Givner's writing style is fluid and able but oddly uninvolving. The combination of exposition, flashback, and the various characters' didactic analyses of both the play and their own lives distances us from the emotional core of the novel. Still, the historical material covered is intriguing and has long preoccupied Givner. In 1989, she published a nonfiction account of de la Roche's relationship with her lifelong companion, Caroline Clement, following it with a play, Mazo and Caroline, performed in Saskatchewan in 1992. Excerpts from that play, which stand in for Hope's in the novel, and the conversations around it communicate something of Givner's enduring excitement over her subject.

"This is a hugely enjoyable read."

The Canada Post

"Playing Sarah Bernhardt is both as complexly plotted as a mystery thriller and as elegantly written as a literary novel should be."

Canadian Book Review Annual

"Givner's found a way to put a lot of her life's research into one place."

Star Phoenix (October, 2005)

"Givner's style is fluid andable ... the historical material covered is intriguing and has long preoccupied Givner." (January, 2005)

"enjoyably, givner offers gllimpses of Berhardt's career and some of the amazing feats of that career."

Malahat Review

About the Author

Joan Givner

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014

Joan Givner

Joan Givner is the author of biographies, essays, and fiction. Her work includes major biographies of Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche, five short story collections, and the novel Half Known Lives. A native of Manchester, England, Givner spent nearly a quarter-century teaching English Literature at the University of Regina before retiring to British Columbia.